There are obvious differences between elite endurance athletes and the rest of us, but a microscopic one seems to have an enormous impact. The gut microbiomes of elite marathoners and rowers appear to have more of a group of bacteria called Veillonella that enhances health and athletic performance. So researchers from Harvard’s Wyss Institute isolated the strain from Boston Marathon runners and elite and Olympic athletes, then gave it to mice. The study, published in the journal Nature, concluded that mice, when given the gut bacteria, ran 13 percent longer on treadmills.
It may be that Veillonella breaks down lactate, turning it into a fatty acid, which the body uses as fuel and as a means to reduce exercise stress. The strain reduces inflammation in the intestinal tract, which usually occurs during and after extreme workouts.
Exercise itself ups Veillonella, so the question is: Do people with naturally high Veillonella end up being elite athletes, or does training alter the gut microbe composition? As NIH researchers answer that, they’re also looking into a probiotic supplement—good news for anyone still yearning to stand atop a podium.